The Seattle NO
Liars or charmers? Decoding the maybespeak of Javatown
If you ever plan to visit Seattle or interact in any way with someone from the Pacific Northwest, it might be helpful to learn about the Seattle NO. In Seattle, for whatever reason, people shy away from directly expressing a No in any situation. Those of you not from the area may be confused: how can someone avoid saying No?
Well, it’s tricky. Often we mean No and whatever we do say instead of No, we assume the listener knows that what we mean is NO. If you invite someone from Seattle to an event and they respond, “Hmm yeah that sounds interesting, I’ll have to check,” that means NO. If they say “Maybe” and then you don’t hear from them for a while, that means NO. If they say “I don’t know” that means NO.
It should be noted, sometimes any of these responses may actually mean that they have to check or maybe or that they don’t know and any of these responses could conceivably lead to an eventual Yes. Except usually what they mean is NO.
So why don’t they just say NO? I have no idea. Since I’m from Seattle, I’ve been hearing this response and giving it myself my whole life and had never thought twice about it. When, last year, a friend mentioned the term ‘Seattle No’ to me, I was intrigued. “It’s our passive aggressive way of saying No”, he claimed. According to my friend, when we feel NO we mean it just as much as someone from Chicago or New York City, but if you went to those places, those people would be direct about it. They’d just say NO.
His theory was that in Seattle, no matter how much we truly want to say NO, we worry what other people will think of us if we say the word. We want to live NO without being held accountable for choosing NO. We want it both ways. Apparently we as a region have decided that really good people say Yes to everything and that saying NO to anything would be a social gaffe along the lines of spilling soup down one’s chin.
He had moved to Seattle at age eight, that’s how he so keenly spotted the difference.
At first I wanted to argue the point, but then realized he was right. Once he had pointed it out, I could think of numerous times I’d done the Seattle NO and that I’d heard everyone I know do it as well. I wondered if avoiding a direct NO meant we were polite or just sketchy.
And it isn’t like people in Seattle agree on everything or never question anything. God no. We love to make a fuss, over things both big and small. We debate over coffee, on the sidewalk, and in our classrooms. We like to talk and do a lot of it. People running for office in Seattle get to hear a lot of people talking, and they’re expected to listen to everyone.
We have opinions. Sometimes these opinions get translated into laws and sometimes those laws seem so smart that other states duplicate them. We are passionately for some things and against others. On ballots, we check the box we mean.
Just don’t ask us a yes or no question. If you do, you’ll hear an iffy sounding answer that will leave you confused. If we answer at all. We may just let you leave a message and then we won’t return it because we’ll suddenly be busy. Or the phone must not have worked. Or something. Why, we’ll tell five or six white lies before ever admitting that we just wanted to say NO to begin with.
So are people from Seattle great big liars? No, not really. You see, we expect the listener to understand we’re saying NO. When people seem confused and confront someone here, claiming they were somehow led on, we are quick to defend ourselves: “What I said was I’m not sure. I never said Yes.”
In fact, it’s seen as a social gaffe (again, like spilling your soup) to not recognize a Seattle NO when you hear one. Asking someone the same question a second time is seen as tacky, in bad form. It’s putting the other person in an uncomfortable position where they might have to be slightly less vague and possibly hurt your feelings. That’s what they were trying to avoid in the first place.
In other words, you may not hear the word NO, but if you hear any combination of vague terms that doesn’t include the word Yes, you should take it as a NO.
That should be right in the visitor’s guide, if you ask me.
Why should we care so much what people think? We aren’t sure. The best way I can think to explain it is that we believe, somewhere deep down, that if we just directly say NO we will appear not unlike Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver saying “you talkin’ to me?”. And while we may love Robert DeNiro, we don’t want to come off like Travis Bickle.
Any time in any situation you get the response: we’ll have to get back to you, that’s a Seattle NO. What it means is we won’t be getting back to you, we’ll be hiding from you because we’ll be scared you’ll ask that question again. So if I tell you I’ll have to get back to you, it means you’ll probably never hear from me again in your lifetime.
If you’re from Seattle, you’ll understand that immediately, the minute you hear me say it. You won’t bother wasting your time, waiting for my call or leaving me confused messages. You’ll have already gotten my answer, which we both understood was NO.
But if you’re new to the area, and by New I mean Not Born Here, you may wonder if I’m still alive. Since I said I’d get back to you, you may incorrectly assume I’m someday going to get back to you. You may even feel miffed when I never do. If I learn that you’re offended, my reaction will be to once again be passive aggressive and claim that I’ve been busy and that I’ve meant to get back to you.
Which will actually mean: Damn, why did I have to run into HIM? I’m never going to THIS coffeeshop again. It will also mean I think you’re a moron for not understanding that I had been trying to give you a polite brush off. Or as you might call it, totally lying. I will feel somewhat superior to you because I tried to spare your feelings by being polite and you were some kind of dimwitted caveman who kept practically begging me to disappoint you.
So just to be clear, if you don’t hear the word Yes, we have said NO.
It’s somewhat similar to how, in Hawaii, the word Aloha means 100 different things. We’re somewhat like that except we have 100 different things we say that actually all mean the word NO.
I say this to help you. And if you’re from outside Washington state and have never encountered this Seattle NO business, you may find it exhilarating to come to our state and try it out. Because if you’re from one of those places where people actually come right out and say NO, you understand that people are frequently then required to answer WHY NOT and often things get angry.
Here you never reach the WHY NOT stage (which usually leads to the angry stage) because you never actually said NO to begin with. You said I’m not sure or I’ll have to get back to you, and then the question just blew away like old dandelion puff. We may sort of be liars, but we’re civilized. Maybe that’s why we’re consistently voted one of the friendliest cities in the U.S. No one’s walking around fuming from hearing NO or from being asked WHY NOT. Maybe we have extra patience just waiting to be given to someone needing assistance or directions or advice.
Heck, in Seattle you don’t even need to go up to someone and ask for directions. If you stand there looking lost, someone will come up to you and ask you if you need help. They’ll probably offer to quickly draw you a map and if you still seem confused, they may even take you to your destination themselves. And if you try to thank them or express that these are nice gestures, they’ll dismiss your thanks and tell you no problem, that they’re glad to help. And they’ll mean it.
So in Seattle, we aren’t total assholes. See, this is maybe why I don’t work for the state tourism board, because I’d come up with slogans just like that one. Or others: Washington, Where Bands Don’t Suck or Washington, Yeah The Coffee Is That Good.
So in Seattle, firm replies are hard to come by. Unless the reply is Yes. That’s an answer we do know how to give and we give it quickly and sincerely. Ask me a Yes question and I’ll love it.
But if I can’t say Yes, I’m going to have to get back to you.
If you enjoyed reading The Seattle NO, you might enjoy reading one of my essay collections: Green Shoes Mean I Love You, Starfish On Thursday, and Secrets From The Star Jar, available at www.amieryan.com